A Swing Vote
Pendulum has polarised the gaming community due to its “real-time” mechanic, coupled with the high-profile nature of Jamey Stegmaier, the publisher behind this game. Stonemeier are a two-person company who have published ten games in eight years. They are hardly a big corporate machine but they make great games! As such, everyone has heard of them and so must have an opinion. Wingspan is a great gateway game, but as it won so many awards, it seemed to annoy the hard-core gamers as people didn’t like the theme, mechanics or simplicity of gameplay. Ultimately, it is a mainstream game released to an exponentially growing market that opened the fan base even wider, and some of the early-adopting original board game enthusiasts didn’t like that, understandably. It also irked most when it won best card game in the BGG awards, which was a little silly, in truth. Sure, cards are used, but it is not a card game.
The second thing to note is that when Tapestry was released after months of hype, it somewhat underwhelmed most gamers. The game itself is solid, the main issue is that it was promoted as a Civilisation game, and it really isn’t. This again annoyed a lot of people.
And thirdly; expectation and component quality. Tapestry, like Wingspan, Scythe, Viticulture and most Stonemaier games before it, had amazing production values. And you would hope so! Most were in the £50 bracket. They set a very high bar when it came to what was in the box. However, with Tapestry, this created more controversy as the most high value components are the beautiful pre-painted building miniatures, which in truth, feel like a side part to the game. As such, people criticised their inclusion. They didn’t have to be there and had clearly increased the cost. Now with Pendulum, we have a game in the £40 bracket, with good but not great components and people have once again got upset. I guess you can’t have it both ways.
Either way, the game itself is very good. I mention the points above because I feel it’s important that, before we come onto the game properly, you read the main reasons why others may tell you to avoid this. As you can see, a lot of these have nothing to do with the game itself.
But what are the gameplay reasons you might not like this game? Well, we will come onto those soon. Let’s get into the game.
This game needs two to three plays to learn it. It has three mechanisms to simplify the rules for first game experiences. There are simplified player mats and cards, rules around the worker placement and scoring and, finally, the timers can be used in a way that removes all time pressures. However, you don’t get the full experience until you are using all these rules and mechanics.
Having now played at multiple player counts and with the advanced player mats, cards and rules, I can safely say this is a good game. Maybe even very good. Ever since I got my copy, I can’t stop playing the game. It has absorbed me in a way no other game has done recently.
Every game of Pendulum I play ends with long discussions about the tactics we employed and how the characters we used added to the experience and changed the way we played. I think this happens more in this game than others for two reasons. Firstly, each game is very different based on which character board you have and strategy you employ. But secondly, and more importantly, as the game is played in real-time, you are very rarely focusing on your opponent’s actions. As such, when the game ends, you want to talk through the highs and lows of the game with the other players as you know they probably were not aware of the awesome moves, or mistakes, you just pulled off!
This brings me to a key point about this game: it is quite a solo experience. You only occasionally look over at what the other players are doing in early games. When you watch a play through, it all looks quite hectic and chaotic. When you are playing, it is anything but. If anything, there are times when you want to do more than you can and are impatiently waiting for a timer to end so you can turn it and take your next move. These are the moments when you do take a look at the other players and see how far they have gone on each track and assess their votes.
So, let’s get into the main reason, gameplay wise, why you may not like Pendulum: the timers! Players either look at the timers turning over and over and wonder how they will ever be able to keep up with the pace of the game, or (like me) want them to turn quicker. This game is real-time. There are no two ways about it. However, for me, it is nothing like other real-time games such as Pandemic Rapid Response or Escape: The Curse of the Temple.
In Pendulum, there is no timer that ends the game. There is no countdown where you either die or lose the game if you don't do something in time. Instead, the timer is letting you know how many turns you can do before the end of that round. You cannot get trapped, end up stuck in a locked room, or lose by not doing something within a time limit, which is often the stress of real-time games. Pendulum is not like this. Pendulum uses time as a resource to limit your actions, much in the way other worker placement games do with resources like brick, stone or gold. Don’t believe the hype around the frantic, chaotic nature of this game; it simply isn’t true. You are in your own world, focusing on your own moves. And the timers ending don’t mean what they do in other games.
So, the question is: do you want a worker placement game that uses time in a new way, but makes you focus more on your own game, than the moves of others? If so, Pendulum could be for you. But if you want a worker placement game where you are more conscious of the other players, maybe try Architects of the West Kingdom. For me, the only fair criticism of this game is the initial isolated nature of gameplay in your early playthroughs. Other criticisms - the chaotic nature of gameplay, the component quality, the review embargo - are all nonsense for me.
Don’t get me wrong though. You need to be aware of what others are doing on occasions. It’s just that you simply cannot do it all the time, due to the real-time nature. However, after a few games, I would wager you will be watching the other players' moves as much as your own, as you become more familiar with the game.
Time to count the votes!
After each round, the player with the highest number of votes gets the privilege in the next round. They also get first pick of the new stratagem cards on offer and they score two points rather than one or none on the top score track. So, there is a reason here to look at the other players to monitor how many votes they have. You don’t need loads of votes, just one more than your opponents.
You play the game in four rounds, with a council phase at the end of each. The council phase is not played in real time. It therefore offers a chance to relax and think about the next round's plan. Each round is only three turns of the three-minute purple timer, and on the third turn, you don’t wait for the timer to run out, you simply flip it. As such, each round is only ever six-and-a-bit minutes long. You can still make some moves after the third purple timer has been flipped, but you cannot flip any more timers. So, the game flows quickly. All in, a game lasts about an hour (although I have played with two players in under 40 minutes).
Despite the relatively quick nature of Pendulum, your player mat and relative powers can evolve quite a lot during the game. You start with four simple powers that can be enacted when you trigger certain places on the board with your workers. Each of these powers can have cards slipped underneath to build your engine. You have to discard down to two cards per section at the council phase, but you can have more during the game. There is also a card that allows you to get up to three per section and, of course, in the final round, you can go as big as you like. As such, some of the moves you are enacting in the third and fourth round seem very powerful compared to the start. This certainly has similarities to Wingspan and is a very enjoyable part of the game.
Each player mat is very different. They are all doubled sided, with the second side offering a lot more asymmetry. This alone brings a lot of replayability, as players will want to try the game with each character, to see what different elements they bring to the game.
Time is up!
It’s nice to wade through the hype and judge for yourself. You'll likely discover that at the end of all the hyperbole and vitriol is just some nice plastic, cardboard and sand timers which create a fun, certainly not frantic, gaming experience. I would highly recommend Pendulum. It has offered me hours of fun and I am certain it will continue to do so. I enjoy the unique nature of Pendulum's timers and the way it makes me think differently about my actions. I am conscious of time in a real sense in the game and am always plotting my actions in a structured and ordered way. As such, when things pay off, the feeling is very satisfying. And this satisfaction has been created in a way I have not experienced in many other games.